September 13, 2009

A bumpy road to Semuc Champey

On the morning of Friday, September 11, 2009, we woke up early and had breakfast at Pollo Campero, the kids’ new favorite fast food restaurant. I was happy with my eggs, beans and tortillas, what they call “Desayuno Chapin.” The only drawback is the coffee, which is not that great. And the tortillas, which are not nearly as good as the ubiquitous homemade tortillas. My kids wanted chicken burgers for breakfast, and Ian’s kids had chicken nuggets. Loaded with ketchup, this didn’t look too appetizing to me. To each his own, I guess.

After breakfast, we had to figure out how to get to Semuc Champey, our destination for the day. A few people warned us that our mini-van would not make it there, because of the bad condition of the road. Others said we could make it. I asked the owner of our hotel. She told me that we could make it to Pajal with no problem, as the road there is paved. From Pajal, it is 12 kilometers on a stone road to Lanquin. From Lanquin, it is another 9 kilometers on a dirt road. She thought we should be able to make it to Lanquin, but not all the way to Semuc Champuey.

There are other options to get to Semuc Champuey. For example, you can pay Q280 (US$35) per person for an all-day tour. This includes transportation, a guide, and meals. That seemed a bit much, multiplied by eight. You also could opt for just the transportation, which worked out to $10 a person. But, you had to leave at 7:30am with the group and come back with them as well. So, we opted out of that one as well. The cheapest option is to take the public transport, which is about $2 each way. The only issues with that are that you have to wait for the bus, and the fact that it can get pretty crowded. We decided to go for the most convenient and comfortable option – driving as far as we could and then hiring a car for the last part.

We set out for Pajal, and, as they said, the road was paved. At Pajal, the road turned to stones. It was actually a pretty good stone road, but we had to drive along at about 10mph. When we arrived at Lanquin, a young man stopped us and offered to take us up the mountain for Q350. That seemed to be too much to us, as that’s what we would have paid from Coban. We told him it was too much, and he came down to Q250. We said it was still too much, and that we were going to have lunch, and then we’d talk to him. They were pretty insistent, and followed our car. They offered to take us for Q150. We told them we’d think about it. First, we had to eat.

We found Comedor Shalom in Lanquin. The food was very good. The fresh, homemade hot tortillas were delicious. We also had skewers, beans, and chicken stew. After lunch, we decided to contract the guy for Q150 to take us up to Semuc Champey. It was a pretty rough ride up there, but the kids got a kick out of riding on the back of the pick up truck. I opted to go up front with the driver.

Thirty bumpy minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to Semuc Champey. Two armed guards awaited us at the entry. We got out of the pickup truck and walked over to the booth where the guards were posted. We had to pay Q50 to get in, plus Q10 for each kid. It’s a fifteen minute walk from the entrance to Semuc Champey, a natural wonder.

When you look at Semuc Champey, you see several large turquoise pools, surrounded by lush rainforest. Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge over the River Cahabon. Fresh springs from the mountains run off onto the limestone bridge and fill the pools with clean, transparent water. The limestone makes the water a bit green. The sight of the transparent water made me want to jump right in. We all changed into our swimwear and jumped right in.

If you walk to the edge of the limestone bridge, you can see where the Cahabon River goes underground. It narrows and gushes in very quickly. One of the workers told us that four people have died there, when they got too close to the edge and fell in. I stayed at a safe distance and took pictures.

Once I got a good look at the tunnel where the river gushes in, it began to rain. We had been at Semuc Champey for a couple of hours at that point, so we decided to head back. The ride back in the pick up truck was less exciting for the kids, now that it was pouring rain. We had parked our car on a hill that sat above the road. The person who took us in the pick up truck told us to park there while we went up the mountain.

Back at the parking space, the driver told us that we might not make it back to Coban, because of the heavy rain. He also suggested that we stay in their hotel. Suspecting that he might be self-interested, we told him we would go ahead and try to make it back.

Ian reversed the minivan out of the parking space, and it got stuck in the ditch formed by the rain since we had left. The minivan wasn’t going forward or backward, it was completely stuck.

The guy who took us to Semuc Champey was gone. It was pouring rain. Nando got out of the car and tried to push. The wheels just spun and spun. Ian got out as well, and I got behind the wheel. They put boards under the wheels, but the car just got deeper into the mud. It began to rain harder. They put stones under the wheels. The wheels just spun.

The kids were screaming and jumping in the car. It was downpouring with no end, and the car would not budge. Each time I tried to move it forward or backward, I feared it would spin out of control. The guy never came back.

I began to wonder why in the world he told us to park there. It rains in Alta Verapaz every day. Any car that can’t make it up to Semuc Champey also couldn’t get out of that parking space in the rain. Maybe it was a convoluted plan to get us to stay in their hotel. There was no way I was staying in their hotel after they had us park there. So, we kept trying to get out.

A young man showed up and began to help Ian and Nando. They put more boards and stones in the mud. The guy got a wooden board to put over the ditch. They put stones under it. Nando told me to reverse straight back onto the boards. I did. The wheels turned into the mud, but I moved, just a bit. We were making progress! They moved some things, and we tried again. Finally, we made it out of the ditch! We thanked the guy who helped us and gave him Q20.

We decided to go ahead and try and get back to Coban. We wanted to get out of that town. So, we set out on the stone road and hoped we would be able to make it. We went slowly, to make sure we didn’t hit any stones or get stuck again.

When we made it to the asphalt, I had never been so happy to see a paved road! What a nerve-wracking experience. From there, it was smooth sailing back to Coban. At 9:30pm when we got back into town, Pollo Campero was the only restaurant open, so that’s where we had dinner. The fried chicken tasted so good! I hadn’t even realized how hungry I was. I had been too worried to be hungry up until that point.

Back at the hotel, we all went to sleep to have energy for our adventures the next day.

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